Lynton’s war machine is getting into gear
When I wrote for Total Politics in the aftermath of the last General Election, my main criticism of the Conservative Party’s campaign was its failure to hire an experienced, seasoned campaigner to run it. The person I had in mind was Lynton Crosby.
Fortunately, other senior people in the Party also held a similar view and the Aussie bruiser was brought on board with enough time to get the Conservatives into shape for the starting gun being fired in April.
Up to this point, Lynton is running a steady, if unspectacular, campaign. His view is that only desperate parties with nothing to lose take huge risks, such as the Republicans selecting Sarah Palin in 2008. So the strategy is to remain hugely disciplined externally, with a highly motivated team internally, and this policy has undoubtedly steadied the ship in recent months.
In theory Lynton should be ready to add a Tory election win to his already impressive CV. After all, the economy has improved beyond all expectations just at the right time, with the cost of living falling and the fastest growing major economy in the world.
Allied to this positive news is the fact that Labour is led by Ed Miliband. Time and again, pollsters tell us that he is the least popular Leader of the Opposition in history. He is seen as weak, weird and awkward. This theory is frequently expressed at dinner party gatherings of Westminster commentators, journalists, and the business community. This may be a blockbuster election but there is no matinee idol to front it.
Yet this view remains almost irrelevant according to the latest polling in marginal constituencies. In Lord Ashcroft’s latest survey of key battleground seats, only one (Worcester) has seen the Tories regain a lead over Labour. It would appear that the Ed factor alone is not enough for the Tories to win.
We should also remember that despite the apparently disastrous showing for Labour at the 2010 election, they are in pretty good shape. Despite Gordon Brown, despite the global financial crisis and the stink of MPs’ expenses, Labour still won 258 seats. This meant that Ed did not inherit a party which had been vanquished in the way the Tories were in 1997 or 2001. The nagging feeling within the Conservative hierarchy is that 2010 represented the best the party could achieve and now things can only get worse.
We should therefore expect the attacks on Labour’s leader to be a significant feature of the next few weeks. If the polls remain as tight as they are currently, we can expect Lynton’s war machine to ruthlessly attack Ed on a personal level. We’ve already seen early evidence of this with the attack ad depicting him literally in Alex Salmond’s pocket. Will it work? Well, sometimes negative campaigning does capture the mood of the nation with devastating results.
The best example is from the 2001 General Election when Labour simply mocked up a poster of then Tory Leader William Hague with the hair of Margaret Thatcher. It was childish and petty, but it perfectly summed up what the public thought at the time, namely that Hague was not ready to lead, that he appeared uncomfortable with the modern world and ultimately he was intent on returning the country to the divisive final days of Thatcher’s reign.
In most other marginal seats, the Tory vote is being ebbed away by a combination of both this Labour rise, Lib Dem collapse and the post-2010 surge in UKIP support. These combined electoral challenges may ultimately overwhelm Cameron’s hopes of seeing out a second, and final, term as Prime Minister.
On a macro level, the key is to ensure Cameron’s positive qualities are utilised and his negatives minimised. As he demonstrated at the Channel 4/Sky election interview, he is the tried and tested leader, who is experienced on the world stage. His communication skills remain the best in Westminster, and he does not seem to be a deranged obsessive whose fingers need to be prised from the door at No.10. However, he is posh and wealthy at a time when most people are not, and this continues to alienate him from the hard-working families he so frequently attempts to woo.
On a more practical level, the Conservatives need to Get Out The Vote on polling day. Labour’s pool of activists in the marginal seats is significantly larger and this could have a profound impact on the outcome of the campaign. For all the focus on leaders’ debates, policy pledges and the inevitable gaffes in the final weeks, ultimately the outcome of the election will be decided by which party manages to motivate its supporters to knock on doors and deliver leaflets in the gruelling weeks ahead.
Given the public remains unwilling to thank the Government for an improving economy, the often naïvely sunny nature of the 2010 campaign is understandably being replaced by one which will leave many wincing. It may not be good for the future of politics but needs must and it may be enough to ensure the Party wins enough seats to have a hope of forming another coalition or going it alone as a minority administration.
And if it all goes wrong, they can always blame Lynton.
Scott Colvin is a partner at Finsbury and a former Conservative adviser